“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something … that wants our love.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Over the past year, have you noticed others gradually retreating when out and about? Does it seem like people have given up common greetings and courtesies like saying hello, holding open a door for someone, or letting someone merge in traffic?
Maybe it is fear of spreading germs, exhaustion from trying to keep our loved ones safe, or the stressful election year we have all endured. Maybe it is because we have been able to stay in our comfort zones more by staying home, and we don’t remember how to connect in some ways, not just with others, but with ourselves and our environment. Maybe it is simply that we have forgotten that all living things are connected. The quality of our lives depends on knowing that our behavior, and the energy behind it, impacts all those we come into contact with, for better or for worse.
We have the power to have those interactions come from a place of love or fear. Here are five ways to give love freely now:
1. Give love freely to yourself
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.” -John Lennon
But how? One of the best ways we have learned to practice self-love is through appreciation and gratitude. It is not just about saying thank you but really feeling it.
We learned how to do this authentically while living at an ashram in Indonesia where we taught English. The 30 orphans who called this ashram home showed genuine appreciation for everything from having a safe place to live after being abandoned, to finding a discarded water bottle on the side of the road to use a soccer ball. They were thankful for the opportunity to do laundry, cook together, and practice yoga and meditation every morning at 5 AM.
When we asked the monk in charge where this appreciation comes from, he explained that many people say thank you but they don’t take the time to feel it. He recommended that each time we want to practice appreciation and gratitude, imagine we are receiving a gift we have dreamed about our whole lives. The moment you are holding that gift in your hand, and you look the other person in the eyes barely able to find the words to say thank you … That is the feeling to strive for. It comes from someplace deep in our hearts and it spills out of us when the gratitude is real. Find that feeling for as many things as you can every day, and you can’t help but love yourself a little more each time.
2. Give love freely to strangers
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” -Rumi
In many of the cultures we have spent time, face coverings are a part of everyday life for a variety of reasons. One thing we noticed was the ability of many of these people, to smile with their eyes. It turns out it is not as simple as smiling extra hard.
Studies show that the muscles around the eye respond only to true emotion. The best way to smile with your eyes is along the same lines as self-love and feeling gratitude – you have to really feel something behind the smile. When we go on a family walk with our masks on, we often talk about something or someone we love, and that conversation fills us with joy. This way, when someone walks by and we smile, the stranger feels the kindness that comes from a real place of connection and love. There has been so much focus, as Rumi says, on wrongdoing and right doing. Genuine smiles are the simplest way to give love freely and the results are immediate. Try it and see what happens.
3. Give love freely to your extended family
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” -Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
It has been a difficult year for extended families due to the inability to gather. Whether it be travel restrictions, safety precautions, illness, or just the distance between us, it is time to share the love.
When we were kids, we made homemade cards to mail to relatives and close friends on Valentine’s Day. We dropped off extra cards at local Senior Living facilities. The nurses would give them to anyone who needed a loving reminder.
Somehow in our nomadic life, this tradition faded, and this is the year we are recommitting. All that is required is scissors, some paper or newspaper, and a box of crayons. Fancy is fine too if you have lace and a calligraphy set, but like Self-Love and Love for Strangers, the gift is in the genuine act of creating a love note. When the card is opened, whether recipients live nearby or in different hemispheres, the love will be felt genuinely, as if you are jumping out of the envelope. As Coelho penned, when we are in a state of loving, we are truly becoming better versions of ourselves, and therefore we have more to give.
4. Give love freely to your immediate family
“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.” -Pablo Neruda
There is an intimacy after nearly a year staying at home that is something new and beautiful. It can also lead to taking those closest to us for granted and forgetting to make everyday activities sparkle.
Some accessible ways to give love freely at home fall around mealtimes. Adding candlelight at any meal brings out the best in everyone and casts a warm glow. Candlelight breakfasts are our personal favorites. Picnicking in a new room in the house is also a way to give love freely. Whether it is a tea party in a child’s room, a family dinner on the living room floor, or a picnic for two on the patio, changing the vantage point from which we share something as special as a meal, puts everything into perspective. It also gives us time to appreciate each other with renewed commitment.
Neruda speaks to knowing and loving those closest to us to the point where we lose ourselves in their presence. Is there any greater gift than absolute presence, to extend to a child, parent, spouse, or loved one we have the honor to live beside every day?
5. Give love freely to Mother Earth and her animals
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements … It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” -C.S. Lewis, The Four Love
The place we spent the most time this year was outside. We are lucky to be in the beautiful Pacific Northwest in the USA during this time where nature is abundant and accessible (albeit wet and a bit rainy).
We are able to walk dogs outside, meet friends at a safe distance, and enjoy nature in all its majesty. Fresh air, deep breaths, the sound of the bald eagles’ wings flapping when it dives for a fish in the lake, wake us up to love.
Nature does so much for us and is, in many ways, vulnerable. We love doing trail and beach clean-ups, some organized locally and others just because we are on a walk and are gloved and masked, so why not de-trash the path? It is a great way to connect safely with others during this time and it is also a way to get outside together organized by a common goal.
Volunteering at animal shelters can be harder with COVID restrictions but not impossible and there are many outdoor volunteer jobs available. As C.S Lewis writes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Outside our door is truly a world of possibility to express love. Caring for our natural environment is a safe way to practice vulnerability without the fear of being judged; yet another lesson Mother Earth has to teach us.
What does Saint Valentine have to do with it?
Saints, according to the Catholic tradition, are very busy in the afterlife. They have holy duties that range from interceding in earthly affairs to entertaining petitions from living souls.
Saint Valentine has a wide range of responsibilities that are very applicable right now. Besides being called on to watch over love, engagements, and happy marriage, he is the patron saint of beekeeping, the plague, and traveling just to name a few of his responsibilities. Given that list, I can think of some things to talk to Saint Valentine about after this past year.
Did you know that there are as many as a dozen Saint Valentines on the Roman Catholic roster, including one female, Saint Valentina? The point is, we can celebrate Valentine’s Day several times a year, as there is never a day where giving and receiving love freely and intentionally is frowned upon. Nowhere in the Saint Valentine literature did we find anything about extra-large teddy bears, overflowing boxes of chocolates, and long-stemmed roses. Not that these can’t be an expression of affection, but they are certainly not required, and we would argue, may sometimes even distract from genuine acts of love and connection. The commercial expression of love can be burdensome and laden with expectations.
Giving love freely is so much grander than anything with a price tag. Reaching for that loving place in oneself, and then letting it out in every possible way, brings us back to life. The beauty is, we have the choice to wake ourselves up to the power of love several times a day. It takes courage and intention, but the rewards are infinite. As Rilke so eloquently penned, how much of what frightens us is, in its purest form, something or someone that wants to be loved?
We owe it to ourselves, our families, our communities, and our earth to pay attention, and simply give love freely now.